I have never actually seen the 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau but I certainly have read a lot about it.
It’s one of those films that seems to get mentioned whenever film critics start talking about the worst films of all time and, as a result, the story of the film’s production has become legendary. The film’s shoot was difficult, for reasons of both nature and human nature. The film was shot in the inhospitable Australian rain forest and shooting was briefly shut down due to a sudden hurricane. Richard Stanley, the original director, was unceremoniously fired by New Line Cinema and apparently proceeded to go native in the Australian wilderness, smoking a huge amount of weed while the studio executives feared that he would return and burn down the set. Veteran director John Frankenheimer was brought in to finish the film and clashed immediately with the film’s notoriously eccentric and difficult stars, Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.
And I have to admit that, every time I read about The Island of Dr. Moreau, there’s a part of me that wants to track down and watch this film and see how bad it could possibly be. But, every time I find myself too tempted, I think about a shirtless Val Kilmer lounging around in a kilt and I quickly change my mind.
Fortunately, if I want to get a feel for the insanity behind the film’s production, I no longer have to actually watch The Island of Dr. Moreau. Instead, I can just get on Netflix and watch an entertaining documentary called Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Lost Soul could have just as easily been called Everybody Hates Val Kilmer. Val himself declined to be interviewed for the documentary and I have to say that I think that was a huge mistake on his part because literally everyone who did agree to be interviewed appears to absolutely despise Val Kilmer. It’s not so much that everyone tells a story about Val’s bad behavior as much as the fact that, decades later, everyone still seems to be so traumatized by the experience of having been anywhere near him. (German actor Marco Hofschnieder especially seems to take a lot of delight in doing a devastating yet hilarious imitation of Val Kilmer smoking a cigarette and complaining about every line of dialogue, regardless of whether it was his dialogue or not.)
The documentary also includes plenty of crazy Marlon Brando stories but there’s a noticeable difference between the Brando stories and the Kilmer stories. Brando is portrayed as being an almost tragic figure, a great actor who hated his talent and, as a result, went out of his way to give performances that mocked the very idea of even trying to be good. As annoyed as everyone seems to have gotten with Brando, there’s still an undercurrent of affection to the Brando stories. That’s something that is definitely lacking from the Kilmer stories.
(According to the documentary, Brando was not a Val Kilmer fan. When Kilmer asked Brando if he had visited the Australian reef, Brando replied, “I own a reef,” and reportedly didn’t speak to Kilmer for the rest of the shoot.)
As interesting as the stories about Brando and Kilmer may be, the heart of the film rests with Richard Stanley, the promising young South African director whose brief “mainstream” film career was pretty much derailed by the drama surrounding The Island of Dr. Moreau. Interviewed at his home in France and captivating the audience with both his intense stare and his mordant sense of humor, Richard Stanley describes both his vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau and the pain of having that vision snatched away from him. Not only does he confirm that, as has long been rumored, he did sneak back onto the set as an extra but he also explains that the production’s problems were largely due to a mishap involving a warlock named Skip.
Lost Soul makes for an interesting cautionary tale about what happens when an artist has to deal with the establishment. Watch it with Jodorowsky’s Dune and have yourself a double feature of “what could have been” cinema.